Before Josh Shaw became the man in vintage-sprint-car restoration, before he rebuilt a single Miller Indy car—heck, before he drove his terrifying Shark Bus () to pole position at the Lawrenceburg Speedway—he worked the T-shirt air-brushing booth at an amusement park. "It was my second job, after the Valvoline Oil Change," Shaw laughs. "My father showed me how to do pinstriping and lettering. He said that I’d never go broke if I knew how to paint a sign."
It wasn’t the only thing that Dan Shaw taught his son. Josh grew up in the sprint-car scene around Cincinnati, Ohio, following his father to dozens of races before beginning his career in karts at the age of 10. Six years later, he was behind the wheel of everything and anything, up to an International Motor Contest Association Modified dirt-track racer, usually at the pointy end of the grid. From there, it was a short step to restoring older sprint cars and an even shorter step to building his own hot rods.
"I’m from the old school in that regard," Shaw says. "The purpose of a hot rod is to make noise and cause a ruckus."
Shaw went to school with the intention of becoming a professional illustrator. He built a reputation as an artist who could paint a car, a private plane, even a Cigarette boat. But Shaw couldn't shake his fascination with the racing of his father's generation, the sprint cars that exceeded 100 mph on short ovals without much more than a rollhoop behind the driver's head for protection.
Given his upbringing and old-school inclinations, it's no wonder his shop, Shaw's Vintage Racing, in Waterford, Michigan, combines elements of museum, working garage, and manufacturing facility in equal proportion. Walls are covered with racing banners, autographed posters from the likes of Dale Earnhardt, and original metal gas-station signs. Shaw is trying to make space on the ceiling to hang vintage BMX bikes that he has painstakingly restored in homage to his youthful years as a racer and trick rider.
Before opening Shaw's Vintage in early 2017, he spent seven years as a fabricator at Zakira's, the Cincinnati race-restoration shop known for complete mastery of Miller Indy cars, right down to the ability to cast new engine blocks from original diagrams. After venturing out on his own, Shaw quickly built up a two-year backlog of restoration work for sprint cars and hot rods.
An ex-A. J. Foyt sprint car Shaw is in the process of touching up sits next to the 1938 Eastwood Special he restored to run in the Race of Gentlemen, a classic-car tribute in Wildwood, New Jersey, last year. His semiorderly workbench is crowded with tools that convey a love of old Indy cars.
There's a T-handled Offenhauser spark-plug wrench Shaw made during his stint at Zakira's. "If you look at the old photos, every chief mechanic at Indy had one of these. It takes 10 minutes to make, but once you have it, you're connected to that tradition," he says. "I have quite a few of the ones used back in the day as well, with names and dates engraved."
Shaw scours swap meets and estate sales for vintage photographs, particularly those taken at Indianapolis. With an encyclopedic knowledge of Indy-car history, he can often immediately identify people and cars in the shots.
Also on the bench is a forlorn lead hammer used for knockoff wheels, bearing the scars of countless rapid removals. It came with a few mid-Sixties United States Auto Club (USAC) sprint cars that collector Ken Keilholz had Shaw source and restore a decade ago. "He wanted to put a new head on [the hammer], but I won't let him do it," Shaw says. This curator's reverence for racing history is a recurring theme, whether he's discussing how to properly restore old Halibrand wheels or enthusing over his acquisition of the dyno control station used by Penske Racing in the Seventies and Eighties.
Next to the spark-plug wrench is an old stamped-metal toolbox adorned with a "Shaw's Vintage" sticker. "This has everything you need to start an Offy. Fuel pills, feeler gauges . . . I'll be at a show and someone will always ask for help with their Offy, so I bring the box with me," Shaw says.
The massive lathe against a brick wall is for his newest project: millimeter-perfect reproductions of the 17-inch steering wheel used in old sprint cars. "These have been out of production for a while, and although I used to buy them for 50 bucks at swap meets, they were getting to the point where you'd see them for $800 on eBay," he says. "I traded some old racing parts for the mold I'm using for the steering-wheel cover. Some of the original wheels were spring steel, cut from old saw blades. Mine are laser cut from 304 stainless, then I use the vintage mold to put a plastic rim on them." Though they look just like the originals, his wheels don’t flex under the strain of steering forces like the old ones. "I'm selling them for $385, so it's not just rich guys buying them," Shaw says.
As one of the younger torchbearers for these vintage dirt-trackers, Shaw feels a sense of duty to spur a new generation of enthusiasts. "I want to be a bridge between young USAC racers who have interest in these cars and the grumpy old men who won't talk to them," he says. "I'm telling them, 'The guys who raced these old cars were just as brave, just as badass as you want to be.' Every time I bring a Sixties sprint car to a USAC event, the young racers are all over it, and that's good."
In addition to running the shop, Shaw continues to race in everything from the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (in a Doran Ford GT owned by Keilholz) to the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Chili Bowl dirt-track championship, not to mention his Shark Bus, which plays the villain's role at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, short oval. Shaw also manages to do a fair amount of pinstriping and lettering in between restoration gigs. When we spoke, he'd just spent the weekend completing an elaborate job on an 18-wheeler.
Needless to say, the price for original Joshua Shaw artwork has risen quite a bit since his amusement-park airbrush days. Put your order in now. It won't get any cheaper. Shaw's Vintage might deal almost exclusively in the past, but its future looks bright indeed.